Ever since I published the first book in the Jacobite Chronicles series, Mask of Duplicity, I’ve periodically received messages from readers wanting to know more about the cosmetics that were used at the time, particularly Sir Anthony Peters’ makeup, which is such a distinctive feature of the fashionable baronet. So I thought I’d write a blog about it.
Cosmetics have been used by both men and women for thousands of years, and for many purposes – to mask body odour, in religious ceremonies, to enhance beauty, to disguise the ravages of age or disease, to appear ferocious in battle – the uses are many and varied.
In ancient Egypt some 12,000 years ago, people were using scented oils and ointments to cleanse and soften their skin, as well as to protect it from the sun and wind, and flower or herb-based perfumes to mask body odour. By 6000 BCE they were also using facial cosmetics to enhance their appearance, famously using kohl, a mixture of burnt almonds, copper ores, lead, ash and ochre, to enhance their eyes.
Perfumes were also widely used in the Islamic world, and were brought back to Europe by Crusaders, quickly becoming very popular, a popularity which has never waned. It would hard to imagine a world without manufactured perfumes now!
Readers of the Jacobite Chronicles will know that Sir Anthony Peters drenches himself regularly in violet cologne. I chose violet as his signature scent because as a child I loved Parma Violets (a scented cashew) and the scent of Devon Violets perfume – the smell still brings back pleasant memories of childhood. However, having accidentally spilt a whole bottle of the stuff on my bedroom carpet, I realised just how sweet and nauseating it is in large doses. Perfect for Sir Anthony, who is also nauseating in large doses!
Eau de Cologne was actually invented in 1709 in Cologne, by Johann Maria Farina, and was originally a citrus fragrance designed to be light and refreshing, and to be used by men and women. Its concentration was, and still is at 12% of that of perfume. It was prodigiously expensive, and quickly became hugely popular in the royal courts of Europe. Of course Sir Anthony, a man of high fashion, would have to have some, but would also have to make it his own – hence the violet cologne, rather than the lighter, more tolerable version! Incidentally, in later times, Napoleon was said to be very fond of violet cologne, having two quarts a week delivered to him.
Sir Anthony also uses an inordinate amount of facial makeup, ostensibly to hide the terrible scars of smallpox that he’s believed to have suffered as a child. For centuries pale faces were deemed to be beautiful and a sign of wealth, as only the rich could afford to stay indoors rather than work outside and become tanned, as the majority had to. People (in particular women) would go to extraordinary lengths to whiten their complexions. As far back as 500BCE Romans were whitening their faces, and in China women were expected to appear like porcelain dolls. To achieve this they starched their faces with rice powder. Everyone will have heard of or seen the famous Japanese Geishas with their flawless white skins, also lightened with rice powder which was sometimes mixed with bird droppings to achieve a lighter colour.
All this was probably more healthy than the cosmetics used for whitening the skin in Europe in the 18th century. Although some of the ingredients in this white foundation were harmless, such as rice powder, vinegar and gum Arabic, in most cases lead, which is highly toxic, was also used. Here is a recipe for white face paint from the period:
Steep the lead in the pot of vinegar, and rest it in a bed of manure for at least three weeks. When the lead finally softens to the point where it can be pounded into a flaky white powder, grind to a fine powder. Mix with water, and let dry in the sun. After the powder is dry, mix with the appropriate amount of perfume and tinting dye.
Of course once you had that much-desired pale complexion, you had to apply rouge to the cheeks and lips. One of the most popular rouges contained vermillion, which is made from mercury sulphate! Fans of Sir Anthony will be happy to know that he uses a more innocuous rouge made from vegetable matter such as brazilwood, sandalwood and safflowers.
Eyebrows were plucked into a half moon shape and then blackened with a paint which might also contain lead. Sometimes the eyebrows were shaved off altogether, and false eyebrows made of mouse hair were stuck in place.
And finally, of course there was the beauty patch, which is mentioned often in Mask of Duplicity as an essential feature of Sir Anthony’s make up. These were hugely popular in the 18th century with both men and women, and were often made of black silk cut in intricate patterns. They were attached with glue and could serve several purposes; they could cover up particularly deep smallpox scars or other imperfections, they enhanced the whiteness of the complexion, and also developed a language of their own, including a political statement – a patch worn on the left side of the face could denote that the wearer was a Tory, on the right a Whig.
I must add that it was not common in 1740s England for men to wear as much makeup as Sir Anthony. Although some did enhance their complexions a little, his extreme use of thick paint and heavy scent is unusual enough to attract comment from his peers, some of whom consider him to be ‘Frenchified’ (paint was more widely used in French aristocratic circles), effeminate or even homosexual. Others believe him to be horribly disfigured. Sir Anthony is, in fact ahead of his time. Twenty years later the ‘Macaroni’ briefly became very fashionable, characterised by their elaborate wigs, very fashionable clothes and heavy use of makeup.
Sir Anthony would have felt right at home, had he still frequented polite English society by that time!
Just to finish; one of my readers, Sue Kelly, sent me a photograph of a figurine she bought recently, that looks suspiciously like Sir Anthony. I agree with her, so with her kind permission, I’m posting it here!